The U.S. Supreme Court had two options: Let killer Marcus Wellons’ execution go forward or try to get to the bottom of a bizarre episode in American jurisprudence.
In 1993, after a wrenching two-week trial, a Cobb County jury voted to sentence Wellons to death for raping and strangling a 15-year-old girl on her way to school. But after returning their verdict, jurors also did the unimaginable, the high court was told in Wellons’ final appeal of his conviction: They gave the judge a gag gift: erotic candy.
In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court last month ordered the federal appeals court in Atlanta to decide if Wellons had received a fair trial in light of the “unusual events going on behind the scenes.”
Capital trials “must be conducted with dignity and respect,” the court’s majority said. “The disturbing facts of this case raise serious questions concerning the conduct of the trial.”
Among those questions: Who would send a judge — a woman to boot — a chocolate penis after a disturbing rape/murder trial? And was it evidence of an unseemly — and illegal — relationship between the judge and jury, enough to warrant a new trial for a convicted killer?
So far, the Supreme Court said, no one “has ascertained exactly what went on at this capital trial or what prompted such ‘gifts.’ ”
After the Jan. 19 ruling, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution set out to do that. In interviews with jurors, the judge and lawyers in the case, the AJC has learned, among other things:
• The juror at the heart of the incident says the whole episode is a misunderstanding, that the candy was merely a gag gift she received from a friend trying to add levity to grim proceedings.
• A former court reporter claims that Cobb Superior Court Judge Mary Staley took the gag gift home to show her husband, a charge Staley flatly dismisses as a lie.
• The former district attorney who tried and won the case believes the appeals court should order an evidentiary hearing to clear up the record.
Staley, a judge for nearly three decades, said she did nothing wrong 17 years ago. She said she cringes at the notion that her name and the word “penis” are now “within five words of each other in a newspaper article.”
“The work we do is important,” she said of her courtroom. “I do it in a serious and dignified manner.”
Mary Jo Hooper of Marietta, the juror who gave Staley the anatomical candy, said there was no attempt to shock the judge or make light of the case. “I ... didn’t see the humor [in her friend’s gift] at all back then, nor do I see it now,” Hooper said in an interview.
“I can’t stress too highly how ethical all of us were about our duty,” she added. “It’s still emotional for me now.”
A harrowing crime, trial
On the morning of Aug. 31, 1989, Marcus Wellons abducted India Roberts, an attractive Campbell High School sophomore, as she walked to a school bus.
Wellons, 34, dragged Roberts into a nearby apartment, cut her face and ear with a sharp object, raped her and strangled her, possibly with a telephone cord.
Wellons, a psychiatric ward counselor and neighbor of Roberts’, was arrested after he was seen dumping her nude body. He never disputed the evidence.
Instead, he put up a mental health defense that included testimony about an abusive father who made their childhood “a living hell.”
The jury took an hour to find Wellons guilty, less than that to sentence him to death.
“It was a no-brainer,” said juror David Humphrey. “He raped and murdered a 15-year-old. What else does he need?”
The trial, though, lasted two weeks, during which the jury was sequestered at a nearby Sheraton Hotel. Jurors said the time away from their families was difficult, and the trial was sobering.
“It was horrible; we saw horrendous autopsy pictures,” juror Lynne Henry recalled.
Several jurors did not want to mete out the death penalty, she recalled. “If we had the option of life without parole, we’d have given it to him,” Henry said. “We took it hard knowing that we had someone’s life in our hands. No one, absolutely no one, liked the idea of a death penalty.”
But a life-without-parole sentence was not yet an option in Georgia, and jurors were aghast at the idea of Wellons’ walking free one day. They knew one of their own, juror Betty Joyce Holden, had a sister who had been murdered by a parolee.
“I didn’t think I’d be picked” for the jury, Holden recalled recently. “But [District Attorney] Tom Charron said he thought I’d give an honest opinion.”
Charron, who got the conviction, is now Cobb County’s court administrator. He said he vaguely recalls the incident involving the candy but never worried it threatened the verdict.
Charron said holding a court hearing now could show that it “had no bearing on the case. I’d welcome clearing up the record.”
Sometime after the trial, Wellons’ attorneys heard rumors that jurors had given Staley a chocolate penis and that bailiff Loretta Perry had been given chocolate breasts. They also heard that the judge had contact with the jurors outside of court.
By 1997, lawyers for Wellons had interviewed several jurors about what had happened. Some, including Mary Jo Hooper, refused to discuss it.
The lawyers then served subpoenas on the jurors, Staley and bailiffs, directing them to testify under oath.
But the state Attorney General’s office objected, asking a judge to prohibit the defense from carrying out the questioning. The judge did so, and ordered Wellons’ attorneys not to contact the jurors.
In response, Wellons’ lawyers filed a motion detailing what they had been told about the chocolate gifts. That document, prepared in 1998, served as the basis of the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The document said that juror Doreen DeArmond had told defense attorneys “that ‘we,’ the jurors, gave a pair of chocolate breasts to the bailiff and the chocolate penis just followed.” She said word of this got around the courthouse and jurors “knew that everyone would say that this jury was different from other juries.”
But in an interview with the AJC, DeArmond said she didn’t know about the candy at all until after the case was over.
“A lot of us on the jury were shocked after hearing about it,” she said. “I don’t know why they sent it. I might have said ‘we.’ Looking back, I think people could take it the wrong way.”
Brenda Rolfe, Staley’s court reporter at the time, said she heard laughter in the courtroom and saw Staley and other court personnel looking at the chocolate penis.
“The judge said she was going to take it home to her husband,” she said in a recent interview. “Later, I saw her on the elevator with the box.”
Staley said Rolfe is lying.
“It went into the garbage,” said Staley, who attributed Rolfe’s account to bad blood over the judge’s firing her. Rolfe retaliated with a federal discrimination lawsuit, which was later dismissed.
Staley said she did not report receiving the candy to the prosecution or defense because it occurred after, not during, the trial.
“I didn’t realize I had any proactive responsibility. ... I never saw anything for me to question [the jurors’] diligence.”
The judge also said she had no direct contact with jurors during the trial, other than a happenstance meeting at a restaurant.
Key juror: All a mistake
Hooper, the key juror in the incident, has been reluctant to speak about the case or its aftermath. When she agreed to talk with the AJC recently, she broke down when recalling the facts of the case.
During the long trial, Hooper said, she asked a friend who ran a candy shop to send her some handmade chocolates. She ordered two dozen chocolate turtles to share among jurors and court personnel. She said her friend, who knew she was sequestered away from her husband, thought it would be funny to include the erotic gift as a joke.
When the package arrived, bailiff Loretta Perry, who screened everything jurors received, saw the extra item: white chocolate in the shape of a penis. Hooper was embarrassed by it. There were no candy breasts in the package, she said.
A day or so later, she said, Perry told her the judge had expressed interest in the gift and wanted to see it after the trial. At the trial’s end, after Wellons had been sentenced to death, several people, including Staley, milled around in the jury room as jurors prepared to go home, she said.
When she saw Staley, Hooper said, she discreetly took the candy from her purse and handed it to her, saying, “This is the item you asked to see after the trial. Don’t open it here.” That, she said, was all that occurred.
For her part, Staley said she respects the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, and does not disagree that a rehearing of the facts would clear things up. But she termed the high court’s perspective on the incident “elitist and superior.”
“Supreme Court justices go to parties, they drink chardonnay and eat brie off little crackers,” the judge said. “Who do you think the jurors are? They’re schoolteachers, bus drivers, housewives, plumbers and electricians. They are the people who run our society.”
Juries have the “common sense of the ordinary man,” she said. Though they may be a “little crude” on occasion, “does that mean they weren’t honest in their work?” she asked.
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in a blistering dissent to the opinion reopening the case, chided the majority as “schoolmasters grading [the appeals court’s] homework.” Scalia suggested any “self-respecting” appeals court would summarily reissue the same opinion.
He ended his argument with this: “Wellons has already outlived his victim by 20 years.”
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